Maureen Hickman Swanson ’90 on common chemical exposure.

Q: As director of the Healthy Children Project of the Learning Disabilities Association of America, can you explain how chemical exposure harms the brain?

A: A growing body of scientific evidence links toxic chemical exposures with harm to brain development. Certain chemicals, such as flame retardants, can harm brain development and interact with genetic factors to contribute to learning and developmental disabilities. Scientists are homing in on prenatal development and early childhood as a time in which the brain is very vulnerable to harm from toxic chemical exposures.

Q: Are the risks of chemical exposure greater today?

A: I work in coalition with several hundred other health, environmental and disabilities organizations. We would say yes. We know from national bio-monitoring studies that levels of dangerous chemicals are increasing in Americans' bodies. Likewise, when there is a policy change or a chemical stops being used, we can track decreases in that chemical in our bodies.

Q: What is the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)?

A: The TSCA is the federal statute to regulate tens of thousands of chemicals in commerce. It was enacted in 1976 and is our only federal environmental law that has never been updated. Under TSCA, chemicals do not get tested for safety and health effects before they are used, and the EPA doesn't have the authority to restrict their use. There are bills in the House and Senate to reform TSCA, and we work to promote reform so chemicals must be found safe for people, especially children, before they're used in products.

Q: How can people limit their exposure to toxic chemicals?

A: You can do simple things like take off your shoes when you come inside and dust regularly, because chemicals accumulate in household dust. Don't use plastics when cooking or heating foods and try to buy local, organic produce. Environmental Working Group has a web database that rates cosmetics, cleaning and personal care products to help you choose nontoxic products. But nobody can shop their way out of exposure to toxic chemicals, and they shouldn't have to. That's why we need policy change.

Q: Subway removed an FDA-approved chemical from its bread in response to an online petition. Can greater awareness effect changes in chemical use?

A: We've seen increasing demand from consumers to know what's in their products and their food and a willingness to demand that toxic chemicals are taken out. That happened with Bisphenol A (BPA) in baby bottles and sippy cups. The market has a lot of power.